016. Identify normal flavors of beer and their source

Identify normal flavors of beer and their source

The aromas and flavors in beer come from its ingredients. It’s not only the ingredients, but how they’re prepared and used in the recipe. This section discusses the three (4) main components of beer and what aromas and flavors they produce.

The 4 main components of beer are: water, malt, hops, and yeast.

Even water—or more specifically the minerals in water—impart aromas and flavors to beer.

In this section of the Certified Beer Server syllabus, we’re concentrating only on the last 3 ingredients:

  1. Malt
  2. Hops
  3. Yeast

The reading material for this section was found in Tasting Beer.

Malt and grain flavors

Yeasts need sugar to make alcohol. Brewers get sugar from grains.

Barley is by far the most common grain used in beer. Barley has been used in beer for thousands of years. It has a lot of starch that can be converted to sugar, and its shells serve as filters.

To make the sugars accessible for brewing, the grain must be “malted.”

Malting is the process of wetting the gain enough so that it germinates and starts to sprout, but then heating the grain to kill it before it starts to grow into a plant. When the grain senses the moisture, it knows it’s time to sprout. So it turns those starches into sugar as food for the growing process.

Barley / Gerste I by Christian Schnettelker on flickr (CC BY 2.0</a>) http://www.manoftaste.de was modified from its original state.

Barley / Gerste I by Christian Schnettelker on flickr (CC BY 2.0) http://www.manoftaste.de was modified from its original state.

Grains can impart a huge variety of flavor and aroma in beer depending on how much moisture and heat is used in the malting process. Some are lightly toasted while other are toasted very dark.

The basic types of malt are:

  • Base malts – The majority of the “grain bill” used in most types of beer, even dark beers.
  • Kilned or Color malts – Used in smaller amounts, up to 20 percent of the grain bill.
  • Crystal or Caramel malts – A special “stewing” process results in a glassy, crunchy texture. It provides fat, raisin, or other dried fruit aromas.
  • Roasted malts and grains – Used up to 10 percent of the grain bill. Provides aromas and flavors of coffee, chocolate and other roasted foods.

Within each of the basic types shown above, there are different kinds of malts.

Adjunct grains are alternative grains. “In today’s beers,” writes Mosher, “adjuncts are about texture more than flavor. All tend to be less assertive in aroma than barley malt.”

For example, “wheat, oats, and rye all add creamy texture and great head retention to beers… Corn and rice always thin out a beer.”

Examples of adjunct grains:

  • Wheat
  • Oats
  • Rye
  • Corn
  • Rice

So that’s a little about how grains and malt affect the aroma, flavor and texture of beer.

Here are some specifics to remember from the Certified Beer Server syllabus. Notice how the aromas and flavors range from doughy on one end of the spectrum all the way to roasted and burnt as the beer style gets darker.

Pale beer: uncooked flour, bread dough

Golden beer: white bread, wheat bread, water cracker

Light amber beer: bread crust, biscuit, graham cracker

Amber beer: toast, caramel, pie crust

Brown beer: nuts, toffee, chocolate, dark/dried fruit

Black beer: roast, burnt, coffee


Hops are in the nettle family and are related to marijuana. Hops have been used in beer since about a thousand years ago.

The only part of the hop plant that is used in beer is the cone. According to Mosher, brewers often incorrectly call them “flowers.”

Bitterness, flavor and aroma effects

Whereas the malt in beer provides the fermentable sugar and some sweet flavor to the beer, hops balance that sweetness with bitterness. Hops can add other flavors and even aromas to beer.

Recall that smell accounts for as much as 90-95 percent of the sense of taste. So brewers can use the varied aromas from hops to do some pretty interesting things.

Traditional regional hop traits

Mosher says there are more than a hundred varieties of hops. They all have their own attributes. You might not consider yourself much of an apple connoisseur, but probably you could easily notice a difference from Red Delicious to Gala and Pink Lady. It’s similar with hops.

Certain hops grow best, and most will best display their key characteristics, when grown in the region where they originated.

American hops are known for their pine, citrus, resin, tropical fruit, and catty notes.

English hops provide notes of “spicy to fruity, with a healthy dose of fresh green grassiness,” says Mosher. They can also provide earthy, herbal, or woodsy notes.

German and Czech hops provide “herbal, sometimes almost minty” notes, says Mosher. They can also provide spicy, floral, perfumy, or peppery notes.


Ale versus lagers flavors

It is said that

Brewers make wort, yeast makes beer. [Tweet This]

Yeast are little bugs that are found all around, on most surfaces in the world. They make bread rise and they turn sugary liquid into beer—or wine, or cider, or…

As the yeast float around in wort, they burp carbon dioxide (CO2) and piss (or puke) alcohol. (For more on yeast, see Beer ingredients and brewing processes.)

God gave us yeast, and yeast gives us beer. [Tweet This]

There are 2 main types of yeast for fermenting beer:

  • Lager yeast
  • Ale yeast

Other specialty yeasts and sometimes even bacteria are used to ferment beer. But lager yeast and ale yeast are the two main kinds.

Lager yeast works at very cold temperatures, around 40-45° F (4-7° C). Beers made with lagers yeasts “have a relatively clean, pure flavor without fruity or spicy aromatics,” says Mosher.

Ale yeast works at warmer temperatures, above 55° F (13° C). They “have loads going on, with fruity, spicy esters and higher alcohols and phenolic compounds, among others.”

These 2 yeast strains have been recently proven to be very closely related. However, the ale yeasts have much more variation, and it shows up in the wide variety of ale beers.

One important chemical produced by both types of yeast is called diacetyl. Diacetyl tastes like butter. At warmer temperatures, yeast reabsorb diacetyl and make it flavorless. So brewers raise temperatures of lagers during conditioning to eliminate the diacetyl flavors. This “diacetyl rest” is also sometimes used in ales.

Weissbier yeast flavor

Weissbier uses a very unique yeast. It “produces a clove aroma, along with banana and bubble-gum fruitiness.”

Other yeast and bacteria can contribute to beer flavor

Some different species of yeast and even bacteria are used for certain beer styles. The 4 fermenting buggies below have unique taste and aroma profiles.

Mosher describes them as “dreaded contaminants in most breweries; brewers bold enough to bring them under their roofs need to take extraordinary measures to prevent their escape and the fouling up of the whole place.”

Brettanomyces is a yeast that Mosher says might be endemic to oak wood (found no where else), but Wikipedia says in the wild it’s also found living on fruit skins.

Brett is used in lambics, some saisons, and English old ales. It “has barnyard or horsey aromas”

Pichia and Candida are yeasts that form films in beer. Chris White says pichia “makes beer that tastes something like sweaty socks.”

(Source: White, Chris and Jamil Zainasheff. Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation. Boulder, CO: Brewers Association, 2010. p 3. https://books.google.com. Accessed September 25, 2015.)

These have a role in lambics, but mostly they just cause spoilage. And it’s not only beer that they spoil, candida is the one responsible for yeast infections. Don’t worry, as Madeleine Davies says, just so you know, you can’t make beer with your vagina.

Lactobacillus and Pediococcus are bacteria that each produce lactic acid, which lowers the pH and makes beer sour. Mosher says it “can also create a lot of diacetyl (buttery) and goaty, sweat sock-reminiscent aromas.”

Lacto is used in beer styles like Goses and Berliner Weisses. “It’s a relatively clean taste for drinkers,” writes Kate Bernot in Draft Mag.

(Source: Bernot, Kate. “Yeast and bacteria 101: Brettanomyces, lactobacillus, pediococcus.” DRAFT Magazine, March 16, 2015. http://draftmag.com. Accessed September 25, 2015.)

Pedio is used in beer styles like Lambics and Flanders Red Ales.

Acetobacteria is a bacteria that produces acetic acid. As Billy Broas points out, acetic acid is “the key component in vinegar.”

(Source: Broas, Billy. “The Bugs that Sour Your Beer (And Why They’re Not All Bad).” Homebrew Academy, September 8, 2010. http://homebrewacademy.com. Accessed September 25, 2015.)

So aceto “adds vinegar or pickle aromas, but may also create a fair amount of ethyle acetate… fruity at low quantities, but in larger quantities it comes across as nail polish remover or solvent,” says Mosher.


So this is a little bit about how the major ingredients categories impart a range and variety of aromas and flavors in beer.

As you develop your palate, and concentrate on identifying specific aroma and flavor elements, you will be able to develop a vocabulary that helps you understand the beer more intimately.

A better understanding and more sophisticated vocabulary for beer will help you better communicate with your customer and know which beer she wants to enjoy.

In the next section, we’ll discuss some “off flavors” and how to identify a beer that has gone bad.

Flashcards for this section

Based on the reading materials mentioned and my notes above, here are my flashcards for this section.

3 main sources of aroma and flavor in beer

  1. Malt and grain
  2. Hops
  3. Fermentation

(and water)

What is the most common grain used in beer?

Barley is the most common grain used in beer because its high starch content is readily converted to sugar and its shells serve as filters.

How are the starches in grain converted to sugar?

“Malting” converts the starches in grain to sugar.

The grain is wetted enough so that it germinates and starts to sprout. Then the grain is dried and heated to stop the process.

4 basic types of malt

  1. Base malts
  2. Kilned or colored malts
  3. Crystal or caramel malts
  4. Roasted malts or grains

What are adjunct grains?

Adjunct grains are grains other than barley.

They are used mainly for texture as opposed to flavor.

5 examples of adjunct grains

  1. Wheat
  2. Oats
  3. Rye
  4. Corn
  5. Rice

Main flavors of pale beer

Uncooked flour, bread dough

Main flavors of golden beer

White bread, wheat bread, water cracker

Main flavors of light amber beer

Bread crust, biscuit, graham cracker

Main flavors of amber beer

Toast, caramel, pie crust

Main flavors of brown beer

Nuts, toffee, chocolate, dark/dried fruit

Main flavors of black beer

Roast, burnt, coffee

How many varieties of hops are there?

There are over a hundred varieties of hops.

Main flavors of American hops

Pine, citrus, resin, tropical fruit, cat

Main flavors of English hops

Spice, fruit, fresh green grassiness, “earth” (soil), herbs, woods

Main flavors of German and Czech hops

Herbs, mint, spice, flowers, perfume, pepper

2 main types of yeast for fermenting beer

  1. Lager yeast
  2. Ale yeast

Main flavors of lager yeast

Clean and pure, without fruity or spicey aromatics

Main flavors of ale yeast

Fruity, spicy esters and higher alcohol and phenolic compounds (cloves)

What is diacetyl?

Diacetyl is a chemical that tastes like butter.

Both lager yeasts and ale yeasts produce diacetyl. Brewers often use a “diacetyl rest” to get rid of it.

Main flavors of Weissbier yeast

Clove, banana, bubble-gum fruitiness

Other yeast and bacteria used in beer

Brettanomyces (yeast)

Pichia and Candida (yeasts)

Lactobacillus and Pediococcus (bacteria)

Acetobacteria (bacteria)

Why write the flashcards by hand?

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    I'm Nathan Pierce. I drink beer, I quit my job, and I'm planning to start a brewery. I also host a podcast about how to start a brewery. So I’m studying for Cicerone® Certification Program, Certified Beer Server exam.

    Study along with me!

    Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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